Contract dispute could eliminate RETN coverage1/22/09

Jan. 22, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Viewers who tune into channel 16 in Williston to watch their elected School Board officials at work could soon see that public access television service disappear. The owners of channel 16, the Regional Educational Technology Network, better known as RETN, have reached a contractual impasse with national cable television company Comcast.

The two organizations have struggled for more than a year to agree on changes Comcast is asking RETN to make. While RETN has complied in some areas, it says it won’t in others. Rob Chapman, president of the Vermont Access Network — which represents RETN — and director of Vermont Community Access Media, said Comcast has been “flexing some muscle” and, quite possibly, overstepping its bounds in what it wants.

“It’s been difficult to understand why Comcast is doing what they’re doing,” Chapman said.

The Pennsylvania-based Comcast, the largest cable provider in the country, said it is looking for more accountability in local access television stations. Kristen Roberts, the company’s senior director of community and public relations, said Comcast has concerns over fiscal and administrative management of RETN. Roberts confirmed RETN has not fulfilled all requests. The two are currently at a stalemate.

‘Critical time’

Doug Dunbebin, the community relations associate for RETN, said this is a “critical time” for the station. Comcast did not renew its contract with RETN South, which serves Charlotte, Ferrisburgh, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Vergennes. And now Comcast has indefinitely suspended its contract with RETN North, which serves Burlington, Essex Junction, Essex Town, South Burlington, St. George and Winooski in addition to Williston. The contract was suspended because certain demands by Comcast have not been met.

Roberts said in a statement the changes Comcast has asked for allow RETN to better manage itself.

“We proposed a contract which would provide enhanced oversight of RETN as they work to put in place a plan to ensure administrative and financial responsibility for our customers and our company’s investment in community access programming,” Roberts’ statement said.

But Dunbebin said the changes would have usurped the power of the RETN Board of Directors, which includes representatives of all the member towns.

Chapman agreed. He said Comcast has made similar requests to access companies across Vermont and other parts of the country.

“I don’t know what their motives are, but it appears to be a corporate strategy across the board,” Chapman said when asked if Comcast had plans for its own type of local community access stations.

Roberts and Comcast did not respond to questions about business plans in their statement to the Observer.

Chapman said Comcast must provide local access television in accordance with the federal Telecommunications Act. Cable companies generally work with public access stations to provide the content, but nothing in the law says they can’t do that themselves.

“We’ve had to justify our existence with (Comcast),” Chapman said.

Local effects

Dunbebin spoke to the Williston School Board at its regular meeting last Thursday about the contract negotiations. He asked board members to fill out a quick online survey about the importance of the station in the community.

“Clearly, this process is going to take a long period of time to resolve,” Dunbebin said.

Dunbebin said he’s been steadily visiting school boards served by RETN to detail the latest news and ask for help in contract renewals. He said the community might soon be asked to comment as well.

School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth said after the meeting she was surprised to learn about the contract issues. She said that while she doesn’t frequently watch channel 16, she does know it’s an important resource for the community.

“I’ve had people say they’ve watched (School Board) meetings on it,” Worth said.

The contract cancellations and suspensions won’t affect viewers initially. Dunbebin said RETN would continue to provide coverage of local school board meetings and events, even when there is no money coming in from Comcast. He did not say how long such coverage would last.

Dunbebin said there was still a chance new contracts could be signed and there were avenues for negotiations. RETN and Comcast will be approaching the Vermont Public Service Board for mediation. Both parties have expressed hope for some agreement in the future.

Chapman put the onus on Comcast to find a solution.

“I hope someday soon they’ll see how important public access is to Vermonters,” Chapman said.